Few were expecting it, but 13 April 2023 will go down in British motoring history. It was the day Ford announced that the Department for Transport (DfT) had approved the use of its BlueCruise assisted driving system on parts of the UK motorway network, making hands-free legal for the first time.
Initially, only a select few gained the ability to go ‘hands off, eyes on’ – drivers of 2023 Ford Mustang Mach-E cars who activate a subscription. Even then, use is restricted to 2,300 miles of pre-mapped motorways in England, Scotland and Wales – the new ‘Blue Zones’. Be in no doubt though, this is momentous.
One foot in the future
“It’s not every day you can say you’ve placed one foot in the future,” said Martin Sander, General Manager at Ford in Europe. “BlueCruise becoming the first hands-free driving system of its kind to receive approval for use in a European country is a significant step forward for our industry.”
UK Transport Minister, Jesse Norman, agreed: “I am delighted that this country is once more at the forefront of innovation. The latest advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) make driving smoother and easier, but they can also help make roads safer by reducing scope for driver error.”
One of the main themes at the recent Zenzic Connected and Automated Mobility (CAM) Innovators event was the need to do more to establish the UK as a global leader. This embracing of hands-free will be noted around the world.
Ford describes BlueCruise as Level 2 driver assistance, with Lisa Brankin, managing director of Ford in Britain, telling the BBC’s Today programme that, in the case of an accident, the driver will still be responsible as the technology is “not autonomous driving”.
BlueCruise combines intelligent adaptive cruise control and lane-centering with an in-cabin camera monitoring eye gaze and head position. If necessary, alerts in the instrument cluster and audible chimes will prompt the driver to return their eyes to the road.
Assisted not self-driving
Unfortunately, and rather predictably, much of the UK media again confused assisted driving and self-driving. The Guardian went with “First hands-free self-driving system approved for British motorways”, The Sun with “Huge car firm is launching the UK’s first-approved self-driving technology”.
Huge credit to Tom Leggett, vehicle technology specialist at Thatcham Research, for doing a marathon round of media interviews to explain what BlueCruise is – assisted driving– and what it isn’t – driverless or self-driving.
“The sudden introduction of this technology did catch the industry a little off-guard, as it was not anticipated that it would reach UK roads for another 18-months or maybe even two years,” he said.
“It has been approved by the Vehicle Certification Agency (VCA) under Article 39 for a new and innovative technology, albeit based on current technology. Basically, the VCA were convinced by evidence from Ford, and their own on-track and on-road testing, that BlueCruise is as safe as, and not fundamentally different to, existing assisted driving technologies.
“The key point to emphasise is that it is assisted driving. What makes it slightly different is that it permits the driver to take their hands off the steering wheel. However, the driver is always responsible for driving. Any input from the driver, such as braking or changing lane, and the system will essentially turn off.
“The hope is that the driver monitoring will make it even safer. It is a camera system which looks at the driver’s direction of gaze to ensure they’re concentrating on the road, not looking out of the window or checking their phone.
“At Thatcham Research, we believe direct driver monitoring will have a significant role in addressing drowsiness and distraction. Currently in the UK, about 25% of all accidents involve some sort of distraction.
“It is vital that drivers using BlueCruise are aware of their responsibilities, and we’ll also be very interested to understand how they feel about using it.”
Please note: a version of this article was first published in the Institute of the Motor Industry’s MotorPro magazine.
Related story: Barrister Alex Glassbrook says approval of hands-free driving is a radical development in UK motoring, and should be accompanied by effective official guidance, training and information to the public and affected organisations.